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Manchester City remain in pole position to claim their first title, but still face a tricky away fixture against an in-form Newcastle side, with goal difference still crucial

COMMENT
By James McManus

Manchester United go into the penultimate weekend of Premier League action requiring a massive favour from Newcastle United if they are to stand a chance of retaining the title ahead of noisy neighbours Manchester City.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson now has to re-focus his troops after the derby day defeat and get his side back to what they do best, and that’s the crushing regularity with which they dispatch the league’s lesser lights at home, for goal difference could still have a huge and crucial part to play on the eventual destination of the league crown this term.

Their anaemic, tepid, defensive display against rivals Manchester City in the derby betrayed their manager’s mindset. The side was set up not to lose, rather than to go out and win convincingly, despite Ferguson pre-match protestations to the contrary.

A draw would have, more or less, been enough to see them clinch the title there and then, but much like the results against Wigan and Everton highlighted, there is an uncharacteristically soft underbelly to this United side and they’ve had trouble closing out games with the customary ease of old throughout the majority of the campaign.

The Red Devils currently sit level with City at the top of the league on 83 points, but remain in second, eight goals behind on goal difference. The reigning champions have failed to find the back of the net in just three games this season compared to City’s five and they boast 18 clean sheets to City’s 16. So why exactly do they find themselves in such a vulnerable position?

PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE WITH TWO GAMES TO GO

  P W D L F A GD Pts
Manchester City 36 26 5 5 88 27 +61 83
Manchester Utd
36 26 5 5 86 33 +53 83

The worrying propensity of this United side to either crack under the pressure or be found guilty of taking their foot off the gas when they’ve been on top and dominating has been a hallmark of their season to date. The narrow wins over the likes of Sunderland, Stoke, QPR and West Brom will be looked back upon as missed opportunities rather than a testament to their supremacy.

It’s become a well-worn cliché to state that United have barely had to get out of second gear for most of the season and while once upon a time the art of winning while not playing well was routinely lauded as being symbolic of champions, it could yet be their undoing. One simply cannot underestimate the importance that goal difference could still have to play on the title race.

Gary Neville argued as much after the Manchester derby result in the Sky Sports studio: "I know - I've been in that changing room for 20 years - it's his [Sir Alex's] worst nightmare. Losing a championship on goal difference is what he always talks about, every single season. In January, in February, in March, whatever month it is going for a championship, he will say if you're 1-0, 2-0 up, 'score three, score four'."

Sir Alex echoed these sentiments in a press conference in the build-up to the Swansea game, stating: "If City were to win by 3-0, say, the goal difference would be 11. It would be impossible for us then, I think."

The only thing that United can hope to do now is rack up a decent scoreline against Swansea and hope that results elsewhere went their way. Looking at Brendan Rodgers' side, it becomes clear that, as fixtures go, United could have faced a lot worse down the home straight.

The Swans away record this season has been patchy at best and they’ve accrued just 16 points from 18 away games this season, scoring just 17 times in the process. They’ve emerged victorious just four times on their travels all season, with wins coming against Aston Villa, West Brom, Wigan and Fulham.

JUDGEMENT DAY?
13.30 Newcastle vs Manchester City
16.00 Manchester United vs Swansea

In essence, with little left to play for, this fixture represents something of an end-of-season dead-rubber for them, with safety already achieved some weeks back and a European push now out of reach, they could be ripe for the picking after a long and arduous debut season in the top flight.

Lest we forget, though, that Manchester City still have the unenviable task of facing a seriously in-form Newcastle United side away at the Sports Direct Arena. Alan Pardew's side bounced back from the shock 4-0 defeat to Wigan last weekend with a superb 2-0 victory away against Chelsea mid-week courtesy of two sublime Papiss Cisse strikes, the second of which would have to go down as a strong contender for goal of the season.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility to believe that Newcastle are more than capable of not only pinching a point off City, but of sealing a crushing and potentially title-defining victory. In Cisse, they have the top flight’s leading marksman these past few months, with the Senegalese striker repaying Pardew’s faith in him to the tune of 13 goals in 12 starts since his January switch from German outfit Freiburg.

Also, unlike Swansea, the Magpies still have something tangible left to play for, with the race for a Champions League qualification place hotting up, and with little to choose between themselves, Arsenal and Tottenham at present. The fact that Chelsea have reached the Champions League final also acts as an extra incentive, as should Roberto Di Matteo’s side seal an unlikely triumph in the end-of-season spectacle against Bayern Munich, there shall only be three qualification places up for grabs through the league and Pardew will be eyeing as high a finish as possible.

FILLING THEIR BOOTS
4.60 Manchester United are 4.60 with 188bet to beat Swansea by five or more goals on Sunday.

Returning to the Manchester United side; they are more than capable of racking up a healthy tally against Swansea. Sir Alex made a catastrophic error of judgement during the derby clash by choosing to start with Ji-Sung Park and Ryan Giggs ahead of Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian in particular remains integral to any title hopes the club may still harbour and he sits in second in the Premier League assists table - behind only David Silva - with 13 to his name, despite playing nine games fewer than the mercurial Spaniard.

Wayne Rooney has enjoyed a memorable season in front of goal and despite not hitting the heights in terms of his overall play, he has still contributed 26 league goals to the cause, four behind league-leader Robin van Persie. There are goals to be found throughout this side, and the likes of Welbeck, Hernandez, Nani and Young are all capable of finding the back of the net.

The title is no longer in their hands and their destiny is no longer of their own choosing. However, if they are to relinquish their league crown to their bitter rivals, there can be fewer worse ways than it being decided by goal difference.

While the youthful nature of this current squad means that they are not quite the dogs of war of yesteryear, expect to see Sir Alex let them fully off the leash against Swansea, with the aim of clinically putting the opposition to the sword now more important than ever.

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